The reaction has been complicated. Most bloggers initially seemed more or less on board, at least in principle. But some controversy has resulted from the gradual realization that the new rules don't apply to traditional news media. In other words, they're regulating the little guy first, and hardest.
You'd think most of this wouldn't apply to us, but you'd be wrong. In this interview with Ed Champion, FTC rep Richard Cleland says that review copies of books ought to be returned.
Seriously? Yes. From Ed's interview:
In the case of books, Cleland saw no problem with a blogger receiving a book, provided there wasn’t a linked advertisement to buy the book and that the blogger did not keep the book after he had finished reviewing it. Keeping the book would, from Cleland’s standpoint, count as “compensation” and require a disclosure.
But couldn’t the same thing be said of a newspaper critic?
Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.
“If a blogger received enough books,” said Cleland, “he could open up a used bookstore.”
Cleland said that a disclosure was necessary when it came to an individual blogger, particularly one who is laboring for free. A paid reviewer was in the clear because money was transferred from an institution to the reviewer, and the reviewer was obligated to dispense with the product. I wondered if Cleland was aware of how many paid reviewers held onto their swag.
“I expect that when I read my local newspaper, I may expect that the reviewer got paid,” said Cleland. “His job is to be paid to do reviews. Your economic model is the advertising on the side.”
In other words, if you review books for free, and get nothing in return, then you still have to return the book. But if you're getting paid to review books, not only can you keep the money, you're not responsible for returning the book. The assumption that good reviews are expected from bloggers is, in my view, insane; I could lecture you for hours about all the crap books that get praised by crap reviewers in the nation's major newspapers (if there even is such a thing anymore), and much of what we say here consists of rigorous criticism. Hell, in the last post, I was even critical of one of my favorite writers in the world.
FWIW, I do not accept galleys from publicists. Rhian does, occasionally. 95% of the books we write about here, we buy ourselves, at an independent bookstore, no less. (Most fiction I buy, or nonfiction used as research for something I'm writing, is paid for by my Cornell research account, but other kinds of books are out-of-pocket.)
Other stuff falls between the cracks, though. We sometimes post about our friends here, and if we do, we do so in the form of praise. Friends we're likely to criticize we don't post about. So...no lies, but not necessarily the full truth. Also, we have friends in publishing, who sometimes send us stuff they think we'll like. Some of these people may expect us to post on the blog about what they send, but often we do not. In the next week or so, I will be posting about just such a book--Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood. I like it--but I also like Matt, the editor who sent it to me. I'm here to tell you I'm not doing him a favor, but ultimately you'll have to take my word for it.
The real pisser here is, the only way for bloggers to actually earn money from their blogs is to run ads, and many of those ads would be in the form of clickthroughs to bookstores, or AdSense. But this apparently doesn't give us the same rights as, say, the Times Book Review, which is in fact no less insulated from cronyism, insider baseball, and mutual backscratching than we are. Indeed, apparently it makes us even more suspect. Even if the Times Book Review's editors are careful to avoid such unethical behavior, they are dependent upon their writers' voluntary disclosure of any conflicts of interest, and believe me, not everyone reports everything.
The FTC's guidelines arrive at a time when I have just recently been noticing how much traffic we get (more than I thought), and considering, after two years, partnering with Powell's for clickthroughs, or sticking some AdSense in the left column. (Rhian, FYI, is leery of this, even without the FTC's rules, and I admit that I am, too.) We have run this blog for nearly three years now without attempting to make a penny off of it, and we'll continue whether we end up running ads or not. But it irks me to think that we would be suspected of unethical behavior if we link readers to Powell's (regardless of whether we like the book in question or not), while there's nothing wrong with Knopf taking out a full-page, blurb-littered ad in the same freaking issue of the NYTBR that their latest literary blockbuster is being praised in.
So: damned if we do, damned if we don't. For the record, the last two books we reviewed, the Lorrie Moore and the Ishiguro, we bought at a store, and are keeping. When we review books here, we will tell you where they came from. And for my part, I still don't want to hear from publicists. No offense--I have one of my own, and she is great. But we write this blog because we like it, not for the swag. Which, nine times out of ten, if it actually existed, would end up propping up the dining room table or on in a box for the library sale.
EDIT: Markos has just posted a very similar diatribe, with more swears, over at Dailykos.com.